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March 26, 2005
Rice: Middle East Status Quo Doomed

Condoleezza Rice spoke extensively with the Washington Post on the foreign-policy objectives of George Bush's second term, and unsurprisingly, democratization formed the focus of Rice's interview, especially regarding the Middle East. The Post reports that Rice underscored the move away from the Scowcroftian realpolitik of cutting deals with the dictators and kleptocrats of the region in exchange for supporting stability by pointing out that the idea of a stable status quo in the Middle East has always been incorrect anyway:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday set out ambitious goals for the Bush administration's push for greater democracy overseas over the next four years, including pressing for competitive presidential elections this year in Egypt and women's right to vote in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

Rice, in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, said she was guided less by a fear that Islamic extremists would replace authoritarian governments than by a "strong certainty that the Middle East was not going to stay stable anyway." Extremism, she said, is rooted in the "absence of other channels for political activity," and so "when you know that the status quo is no longer defensible, then you have to be willing to move in another direction."

That was as far as Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright quoted Rice. However, she went into greater detail, which one can read in the transcript of the interview itself:

Q: So you're not concerned about a rapid rise of Islamic fundamentatalism in many of these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia or even as Iraq that started out?

SECRETARY RICE: Oh sure. Nobody wants to see the rise of greater fundamentalism or greater let me use extremism. But it is really as opposed to what at this point? It isn't as if the status quo was stable the way that it was. What we really learned on September 11 as you really started to look underneath what was going on there, is that the Middle East is a place that's badly in need of change, that some of these malignancies that are represented by the rise of extremism have their roots in the absence of other channels for political activity or social activity or the desire for change, and when you recognize that and there are some who recognized it well before we did but when you recognize that you can say, all right well now I'll try and design the perfect counter to that. Or you can say, the United States is not going to be able to design the perfect counter to that; the only thing the United States can do is to speak out for the values that have been absent, liberty and freedom there, and it will have to take its own course.

And then you have to have some confidence that democratic institutions and people's desire not to live in violence and not to be kind of constantly sending their children off to be suicide bombers, is going to have a moderating effect on the region.

The specific tie to 9/11 somehow gets washed out of the Post's article, but it holds the key to the significant foreign-policy change from that espoused by the Scowcrofts and Kissingers to the democratization that has come directly from George Bush. Later, Rice makes the important point that part of the problem with the United States and its reception in the Middle East came from its hypocritical stance towards that region, obviously favoring the oil trade over its supposed concern over liberty and human rights, and how that hypocrisy also contributed to the extremism that led to 9/11:

I also think there's some argument to be made that America's association with the freedom deficit was a problem for the United States in the region. There are now all kinds of studies of this that people said well, you talk about democracy in Latin America, you talk about democracy in Europe, you talk about democracy in Asia and Africa but you never talk about democracy in the Middle East.

And, of course, they were right because this was the decision that stability trumped everything, and what we were getting was neither stability nor democracy.

Rice and the Post didn't limit talk about democratization to just the Middle East, especially after this week's events in Kyrgyzstan. The Post asked Rice about the potential for all of these events in the former Soviet sphere of influence to lead to a perception of encirclement to Vladimir Putin. The Post wondered about the isolating effects democratization has had on the Russian president-cum-autocrat and the potential for resultant instability:

[T]he fundamental fact is that the space around Russia is changing and changing pretty dramatically, and I've been heartened by the fact that after great difficulties around Ukraine, the relationship seems still to be in very good shape and indeed around Kyrgyzstan we've had very little problem whatsoever.

Nobody is trying to encircle Russia. It's a sort of 19th century concept, encirclement. And in fact that we're trying to promote, we and others, is the democratization and therefore the liberalization and ultimately greater prosperity in the whole space that is the former Soviet Union. And, based on that, you would have greater opportunities for trade and greater opportunities for economic development of the whole region, and in many ways nobody would have a greater interest in a more prosperous, forward-looking space around Russia than Russia would.

So part of this is conceptual, is to start to get Russia to see that, and I think you've seen some movement. It's not going to be a matter of controlling these countries. It's going to be a matter of transparent and healthy relations between them.

First, as I pointed out yesterday, in order to really worry about encirclement one has to see true democratization in Kyrgyzstan first. The outgoing ruler, Akayev, had balanced his foreign policy between Russia and the West, offering military bases to both the US and Putin after 9/11. All indications so far show that Akayev's opposition have a much more Russo-centered policy in mind, which seems to have been confirmed by Putin's quick endorsement of their rule. The most popular of the new group, Felix Kulov, ran their security apparatus since the KGB left Kyrgyzstan and as chief of staff for their military spent a lot of time coordinating with the Russians.

Before we can talk encirclement, we need to see whether Kyrgyzstan actually reverts to another strongman-type rule, replacing Akayev with just another flavor of autocracy, or whether the Bakiev government holds true to its promise of elections in June. Akayev has fled to Moscow, apparently giving up on returning to power despite protestations otherwise. If Putin wanted him back in power in Kyrgyzstan, I doubt he would have taken Akayev in that quickly. Putin's playing for stability, which inspires some healthy skepticism about the aim of Bakiev and Kulov in Kyrgyzstan.

Rice speaks extensively on democratization during the interview; in fact, it intertwines thematically in her answers to nearly every question the Post asks during the interview. Rice shows that she's clearly on board with George Bush and therefore represents him in a way that Colin Powell never quite achieved. People widely assumed Powell had less commitment to this foreign-policy philosophy, although it may have more to do with wishful thinking on the Left and abroad than Powell's actual views. However, no one can mistake Rice's commitment to Bush's policy, nor her erudite and skillful representation of it. Having Rice run State sends the clear message that Bush and the US remain totally committed to democratization as the primary focus of both its foreign policy and national security strategy.

Read the entire interview, and skip the Kessler/Wright report on it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 26, 2005 7:57 AM

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